Soloist

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion.

/\/\/\/\

His office was always messy. His desk was buried by printouts and folders in precarious stacks. Bookcases spewed dog-eared tomes onto the floor. The windows were obscured by transparencies, taped by the edges at irregular angles. None of the file cabinet drawers shut properly. It all smelled like the musty saturated disappointment of a public library.

The room's chaos spread over subjects far beyond his actual job, from space travel to sexual disorders, paleontology to pianos. There seemed to be no underlying arc of cohesion or coherence, but despite the manic range he was always possessed of a composed, gentlemanly demeanor, and when he did venture out beyond his office his interactions were orderly and clean, giving no hint to the soul-flaying fervor he conducted his internal life.

That was fine. She didn't care about whatever insane passions directed his personal time. As long as he kept his craziness under wraps and focused on what was most important when she was around, she would tolerate it. When she first entered his office she thought she stumbled into the hidden lair of a mad scientist. His calm manner did not dissuade her; it could all be an act, a constructed front for the public to facilitate the crushing endeavor called life. And she knew all about a public front.

"Professor Fuyutsuki," she greeted through a yawn.

"Ms. Soryu," he greeted with a wrinkled smile.

Asuka slipped through the room's bedlam to the available chair before his desk. It was well worn, fat with cushions and impeccably clean. It sat in a circle of visible beige carpeting, mountains of obsessions walling it off from any escape.

She slouched into the chair's waiting maw and sank against the left armrest. Her legs dangled carelessly to the right. She stared up at the socially conscious contortion of wrinkles he called a smile.

"We find ourselves here again."

"You mean this isn't a social call?"

"While I am always happy to see you, I'm afraid today business must supersede pleasure."

The routine of lengthy pleasantries was getting progressively shorter these days. He held a tired, silent kind of understanding with her, of the burden of intelligence and drive, and its practical usage in a world that was neither intelligent nor driven. And she would humor him for it because his delusions were a pale, skeletal shadow of the weight she traveled through life with. The way a hardened vet humors an eager rookie. The way a quietly proud elder humors a dumb child.

Asuka didn't like thinking of herself as elderly, even if it was a quietly proud elder. Screw that. Why was she here, again? What day was it?

"We can't continue to put this off," Fuyutsuki told her. "This is, ultimately, about your future not only at this institution, but beyond."

She stretched. The chair was comfortable. Plush, possessing a delicate firmness that conformed without losing support, large enough to nap on. Fuyutsuki's own chair was that of an underpaid, overworked cubicle drone, full of sickly creaks and groans when he moved, bearing all the comfort of two plywood boards hastily nailed together. It was old, strategically missing its right armrest to expose a dirty metal bar. The back was short and angled without support. Despite that, his posture was immaculate.

"It falls to me," he went on, "to offer whatever aid I may on your journey to that beyond. I know that together, we can find a satisfactory solution to our current… situation."

The token gesture of giving his guests the superior chair while subjecting himself to crippling discomfort used to put her on guard. What was his angle? Some misguided attempt at humility? Was he a masochist? Senile? Did he suffer under the debilitating Japanese sense of accommodation? He was a professor of something Asuka didn't care about at an elite college yet seemed to shun the perks naturally associated with the position. There was some deep, painful scar that never healed right in this man.

"… Ms. Soryu?"

"So this isn't a social call."

"No." He looked strained, even as his voice came across relaxed and genuine. "But that doesn't mean we default to a combative posture. As I said, I'm here to aid you."

"So," she said, with a vague wave, "aid. Do whatever it is you do and make this go away."

"I'm afraid my voice would fall on deafened ears. The arrangement the rest of the faculty already agreed to is not written in stone, but a tentative agreement to it would at least show a willingness to cooperate and open up the possibility for future negotiations."

"So you're not going to aid me."

Fuyutsuki took a breath. "Believe me, this is an aid to you. It works towards your continued presence at this institution. But it requires a show of good faith and a willingness to complete given assignments."

"You call that aid?"

"I call that aid for the situation you're in."

"You're just jealous of me."

"I am not—" He regained his composure. "Look. I agreed to be your academic advisor as a favor to your mother. I have never regretted it, despite the cheating, lax study attitude, tardiness, cheating, cut corners, student intimidation, physical altercations and cheating. You cannot simply coast by on your natural intelligence. We all know you're bright. I know you're bright. But I know you can do this. And you will do this, or I really will have no recourse when the rest of the faculty calls for your dismissal again. So, please, for your own sake, agree to the deal."

"… I'll think about it."

Fuyutsuki exhaled and tried to relax back into his chair. He nodded to himself like he just achieved a great victory. Honestly, it was fifty-fifty. She might throw away her entire academic career out of stubborn spite. Or a bad hair day.

She was already out of her seat, twisting her way past his obsessions to the door.

"Then I'll send you the specifics," he said to her back.

"You do that."

She shoed the door open and slipped from the room, tripping on a pile of books by the frame. She stood, swore, and slammed the door shut behind her.

/\/\/\/\

It was spring. The air was crisp and warm, the sky was bright and clear. Asuka hated it. The good weather was a free pass for the lowest common denominators to crawl out of their lairs and slum it up all over the college's meticulously manicured lawns. When it rained or snowed, or was too cold or too hot, they all stayed behind locked doors and shuttered windows engaged in the kind of debauched normalcy so prevalent in her peers.

Like right there. Out beneath the low-hanging canopy of a bent tree a timid couple shared a timid embrace, throwing away what little self-respect they had for a moment of public affection. Asuka gagged. All of these nobodies around her, happily seeking out other nobodies, were offensive affronts to her singular existence. She was drowning in a sea of blank-faced zeroes.

Asuka descended the wide front steps of the faculty administration building to the circuit of interlocking paved walkways that connected the college's halls. There was a good crowd out; most afternoon classes had finished and the rush was on to catch professors before nightfall. She mentally steeled herself before wading into the muddied waters.

Near the bottom of the steps was a small group of anonymous males, trying hard to look cool and not look like they had checked her out. Both efforts were wasted. The boys were boring dullards without any sense of discretion or shame. Even now one was casually angling his phone to snap a picture of her underwear as she descended. A quick click and the device slipped into his back pocket. The group rose to leave.

Asuka was presented with a dilemma. While rendering the boys unconscious via physical violence was not out of the question, it was technically broad daylight, and the surrounding witnesses could make life difficult. Also, she was a little tired. Plus, these weren't her good fighting shoes.

That left option two. She trailed behind the group, inching closer without notice, waiting for an appropriate fork in the road and—

"Oops."

She gracefully tripped into the boy before her, angling her shoulder for a hard hit, instead missing and smashing her right breast into his left arm. The effect was greater than anticipated and the boy's guard was completely compromised. Asuka diligently went to work.

"Whoa!" the boy said, bending and trying to catch her once he determined how hot the person bumping him was. The male brain's ability to compute sexual stimuli under time constraints never failed to disgust.

Asuka sluiced out of his grip, resisting the urge to simultaneously break his fingers and vomit. Violence and nausea, the familiar reactions to boys, had long deadened her outrage by constant exposure and she was able to compose herself readily.

"Wow, um, well…" The boy tried a smile. A grin of perfect angle and nonchalance practiced on a million mirrors. "You okay?" He wavered a hand out for possible support.

Any disgust had already fallen to utter dismissal. Asuka was done with the thing before her. A parting barb on his sloppy hipster attire or dirty fingernails was above him. He was consigned to the dregs of humanity with the rest. A fatigued roll of her eyes would have to do as a farewell wish for him to die and stop consuming precious natural resources.

She left with the sounds of indignant male confusion at her back and the reassuring bulk of the boy's pick pocketed phone under her jacket. Although the battle was won, there were casualties.

I'm sorry, righty, she thought, glancing down at the tainted mound. A sacrifice for the greater good. War was ugly. She decided on a PTSD-fighting shower to get the filth off after being so close to that collection of human disappointment, and headed home.

"Yo!"

Asuka failed to cover a slump as she heard the voice. Did she have a target on her back? She knew she stood out in a crowd but the way Mari Makinami could find her at will was unnatural.

"So you escaped the academic tower of doom," she said as she fell into pace beside her. "And here I was rushing to be your knight in shining stockings."

"Break this," Asuka commanded, handing over the pilfered phone.

Mari shattered its face over her knee without hesitating, dunked it into a passing fountain, then flung it carelessly into a garbage can. All without breaking stride. Asuka was almost impressed.

"So how did the meeting go? Oh. That well?"

"Fuddy-Duddy Fuyutsuki is convinced my educational future is in mortal peril just because I'm too smart for the classes here. It's like everyone is up in arms over their own ineffectual, outdated schooling methods. It's not my fault I'm too good for this dump."

Mari shrugged a casual resolution. "I could convince him to get off your back."

"And how would you bring about that small miracle?"

"By sleeping with him."

Asuka looked ready to vomit. "He's like a million years old. And no. He made it painfully clear his hands were tied on this. Another endowment won't sway the old farts again. I have to go through with this dumb deal."

"So the Princess will be forced to play with commoners?" Mari gasped.

"Seems that way."

She frowned, yet it still seemed like some kind of deviant, giddy smile. "It's depressing to see you so glum. Come on," Mari said, already pulling her along without consent. "Let's go watch me get drunk."

She made a beeline for the most respectable of the off-campus bars, The Beast. Asuka would on occasion indulge her and sip a foreign lager, but only worked on her tolerance in the privacy and security of her own domicile. Mari seemed content to blackout at the drop of a hat in any social scenario but Asuka wasn't about to lose composure or control like that. Still, it was a point of personal pride to be able to hold her liquor. There was also the image she upheld to her uncultured peers who still bought into the unapproachable sophistication of Europeans. It was a handy tool to keep them longing from a safe distance.

"Fine," she relented, after nearly being dragged off grounds. If nothing else, it beat writing out her psych report.

"That's the spirit!" Mari increased her pace. "If we hurry, we can save my favorite stool!"

Asuka got the impression this was no longer about making her feel better at all. "That stool is reserved for you. You carved your name in it. And drew blood for it."

"That dude had it coming."

Subconsciously, she knew this was nothing more than a distraction to obscure the inflexible reality lying before her, but it was a welcome distraction. A reward for surviving another day under the crushing weight of the world's incompetence. Which wasn't much of a reward at all. But without it stress had a funny way of sneaking out and compounding her problems with socially unacceptable displays of frustration.

She headed to the bar, each footstep another notch towards breakdown.

/\/\/\/\

Asuka's dorm was meticulous in its sense of decorum, matched only by its sense of cleanliness. Neither of which belonged to her.

The dorm was technically a two-story townhouse meant to board four, but through some careful continued negotiations involving blackmail, extortion and planted baggies of prescription drugs, Asuka had secured a somewhat comfortable base of operations. As the house became a revolving door for delightful new roomies the faculty forced on her, the higher-ups finally got wise and decided to just let her have the damn thing for herself.

But the best of the worst was nothing to be proud of. While the townhouse contained four bedrooms, a kitchen and full bathroom, it was undeniably still a student domicile. Asuka was somehow expected to live in these substandard conditions. Her mother insisted on a proper collegiate experience, which meant forced interaction with the dirty ignorant masses.

Granted, admissions and stress-related suicides weeded out the truly poor and stupid, but she found college to be little more than a high school you were trapped in, just with more morning after pills and hard liquor. It further diminished her peers in comparison to her. And they were already so low to begin with.

"I'm back," she called out as she slammed the front door behind her. She glanced at the clock over the kitchen table. Only two in the morning.

She waited. She opened the front door again and slammed it shut again. She reannounced her arrival.

A girl stumbled out of a bedroom in pajama pants and a t-shirt, bleary eyes darting around in a panic. "Ms. Soryu?"

Best not to let the help get too familiar. Mari was allowed usage of her first name as a gift for her fickle academic brilliance and unusual usefulness. It was also far easier than arguing with that sociopath.

"Congratulations on remembering my name."

"Um, you were out really late, so I decided to go to bed. Um, I'm sorry? I-I did finish the chores; your laundry is in your rooms, the bathroom is clean, the garbage is out, your psych report is finished, um…"

Asuka listened to her ramble on with the appropriately entitled dull impatience of a slave owner. It became apparent early on that certain aspects of her college life would need outside assistance. Not help, she didn't need help from anyone with anything, but simply a facilitation of her natural order. Like choosing to sit in a chair instead of on the floor. She required the means to not be an undignified peasant while simultaneously presenting an ideal to them they could never reach.

Straight guys only did things for her with the hopeless hope of bedding her; eventually they all gave up. Such was the story of her life. Men gave her nice things then disappointed her. Gay guys were not prone to giving her nice things, and kind of grossed her out anyways.

That left some manner of acceptable, or at least tolerable, preferably controllable, girl to handle the various trivial aspects of life that were beneath Asuka. That left Maya Ibuki.

"… And I made dinner," Maya finished, pointing weakly to the refrigerator.

"And? Did I eat it yet? Of course I didn't. Why on earth would you think a meal merited mention if I hadn't eaten it yet?"

"Uh, sorry! Sorry!" She scampered to the fridge to retrieve the food.

Asuka had a brief glimpse of a confused, noodle-filled attempt at Italian before Maya stuffed it into the microwave to reheat.

"Is the stove busted?"

"Um, no?" Maya began breathing fast. "I just thought the microwave is faster, and you must be hungry, and—"

She deposited herself on the living room couch and heaved a long-suffering sigh. "It'll have to do."

After watching Mari get sufficiently hammered and leaving her to the exhausted mercies of the familiar bar staff, Asuka headed home and found this waiting for her. She knew she couldn't expect miracles from Maya, but she hoped for competence approaching a livable standard.

Maya retrieved the warmed meal and presented it like a mentally challenged sixth-grader showing her parent a fresh artistic masterpiece of crayon scribbles and dog feces. Said parent received it with the disappointed dutifulness of a hopelessly burdened legal guardian. But a hungry one.

"It's edible," Asuka said between mouthfuls. Which was technically true. She believed she'd be able to digest and pass the meal without complications.

"I'm glad."

"Well, you shouldn't be. There's been no positive progression regarding your cooking. It's been a manic seismograph of terrifying lows and basic recipe reading comprehension."

"I know," Maya said, bowing her head to take her punishment.

"The noodles are soggy, the sauce is watery, the seasoning is limp. And where's the meat? If this is what I have to look forward to I should take my chances at the caf."

The college claimed the cafeteria was a culinary lab run by world-renown chefs but Asuka knew better. Cafeterias were feed troughs for conformity, shoveling overpriced conveyor belt slop into the waiting gullets of the mouth breathing masses that were too dumb or too lazy to secure real, honest food. Her attempts at destroying and remolding Maya into a master chef had so far met with disappointment and regret. The girl just didn't have whatever innate spark of pedestrian competency regular cooks were privy to.

"S-Sorry," Maya wilted.

"Stop blubbering. Your weak attempts at gaining sympathy aren't magically improving this meal."

Which was half-gone. Hunger might be the best spice but desperate convenience also worked in a pinch. It helped to mask the truth, that here she was yet again forced into lowering her standards for a lack of proper recognition and resources. Like in Fuyutsuki's office. Like waiting in the bar until Mari was sufficiently blasted. Like returning here to find bad food and worse company.

She needed a break from how painfully stupid the day turned out. She needed to kill something.

Asuka eyed Maya for a moment, then decided against it. She just had the carpets cleaned. And her laptop was closer. She pulled it open and waited for Victorious Armor Online to boot up.

She lost interest in the game after the level cap but the community still revered her prowess. If anything, they were indebted to her for ever gracing their miserable digital lives, but since the game devs refused to allow any kind of hard currency transactions within the game world she had to settle for their undying adoration.

She was a living legend among them, her battlefield prowess in both melee conflict and tactical planning second to none. Gaming blogs and conventions begged interviews but shrugging off the anonymity of the net and revealing her face would humanize her to a dangerous degree. They all yearned to be her, to touch some miniscule portion of her greatness; they needed it. Like supplicant worshippers before an almighty god.

It was still no small task for God to maintain Her presence, carefully bolstering support while snuffing out dissention. Most days she allowed her two most loyal acolytes to conduct business in-game as she sat back and reaped the rewards.

Makoto871 and deadAida were, so far as she could or cared to surmise, bootlicking manchildren with a fetish for women in positions of authority. Luckily for them Asuka managed to discover a use for them. A virtual use, but a use nonetheless.

The game loaded. She logged in. Welcome, HotBlood, the game greeted her. Almost as soon as her avatar digitized in the main throughway hub she received a message.

Welcome back, O Great One, deadAida greeted.

Asuka wasn't surprised to find him awake at this hour. He was always on when she was on. Always. He was clearly someone with too much time on his hands. He scoured fansites and forums defending her greatness under a slew of names and grammatical styles, though he was prone to lengthy rants laced with politically incorrect profanity when challenged. His was a nearly religious loyalty, the kind you had to keep an eye on lest they show up outside one night with a gun and two bullets.

Makoto871 was a quieter lackey, using more pragmatic methods to sustain her legacy involving statistical upkeeping and video documentation of her feats. Although polite, his civility was a beaten one, begging for scraps of approval from a clear superior without any idea of bettering himself.

Asuka could easily reveal herself to those two and enjoy a pair of real life slaves but then they'd be no different than the hordes of other drooling men around her hoping she'd spare a glance. No, she owned deadAida and Makoto871 on a deep, fundamental level, making them contort their lives around her via a virtual avatar. She was their entire world here. Any slut could own a man. It took a special kind of woman to control a guy through his video game.

Care to purge some heretics? deadAida posed.

Why not, Asuka deigned. The stressed frustration of the day might be alleviated by humiliating some losers in team PvP play.

She loaded out her mecha, the sleek and stylish Red Victory, and allowed deadAida the honor of bringing up her left flank. They entered the sulfurous war-torn landscape littered with the shells of cities under a crimson sky, a vast wasteland where players could level up on AI drones and also form parties with others online to compete in designated zones for rankings and perks.

deadAida alerted Makoto871 to her online presence, and through his connections the world was soon flooded by players drooling for a chance to be on her four-man team, and haters hoping to take her down. Asuka let Makoto871 and his obsessive eye for background checks and stats choose their fourth. There were over two dozen enemy teams to select from already, all bristling with cheap machismo from sweaty keyboards.

She honored the highest-ranked to do battle with her and they were all swept to a cordoned cityscape of crumbling skyscrapers and pockmarked asphalt. The teams prepared to engage. deadAida the voyeur took a sniping position on one of the remaining buildings. Abuse-sponge Makoto871 slowly waded into direct, open conflict. Their random fourth tried to stay near Asuka, but failed as she sped along the map, searching out her first kill.

She favored melee weapons and small arms, anything that required the closest range and highest skill to master, sacrificing raw power and armor for speed and agility. She wanted her prey to realize, even after the fact, that she was braver, smarter, faster and more skilled than they were. Getting up close and personal was the most viscerally rewarding way to achieve that.

deadAida relayed enemy positions. Makoto871 expertly drew attention. Even the fumbling fourth worked well as a decoy. The team was an oiled machine of her design and Asuka reaped the benefits. Their fourth was soon cornered by two players, opting for the quicker kill, and sent a jumbled, frantic, keyboard-smashing message for help.

Asuka leapt off a nearby building and kneed the first enemy in the face, stunning it, landed, and planted a knife in the foot of the second to stop its movement. She unsheathed a vibrating sword and cleaved the stunned enemy in two, crotch to cranium, then sliced down to decapitate the immobile one. Before the mechs crumpled to the street and burst into flame she was off to hunt down the remaining two.

Godly! deadAida gushed.

As expected of you, Makoto871 sent, along with an enthusiastic emoticon.

Their random fourth was too stunned and grateful to contribute.

Asuka sighed. Why couldn't real life be like this? Earning glory and praise by killing idiots, making everyone flock to her natural brilliance with big, flashy, demonstrable feats of wonder. It seemed like the real world was working against her while simultaneously promoting morons and children.

She humiliated the other two foes in similarly short, stunning fashion, but the thrill was already fading. The kills were nothing but a handful of keystrokes in a long line of virtual commands. Asuka glanced at the clock. It was after three. She rose from the couch.

"I'm turning in," she announced, still one-handedly working the laptop as she walked upstairs. "Destroy the rest of that meal."

She didn't wait for confirmation and slipped away to her room. Despite the hour and the persistent, gnawing fatigue shadowing her all day she sat cross-legged on the bed, fingers dancing over the laptop keyboard to deal digital death, trying to recapture the memory of superiority and greatness she deserved.

/\/\/\/\

Asuka sucked down her third coffee and tossed the cup in the garbage can's general direction. If she made it, great. If she missed, someone else would pick it up. She couldn't be expected to pay attention to minor details like basic public sanitation. She had far more earth-shaking concepts occupying her mind.

Like trying to remember why she was awake and in the college library. A vague recollection of dire consequences forced her out of bed this morning and nipped her heels across campus. Maya was babbling about an administration letter over breakfast, but when wasn't Maya babbling about nonsense over a meal?

And what was she wearing? These clothes didn't match at all. It's like Ibuki wasn't even trying anymore when she organized her outfits. But what could she expect from a girl who thought kittens were cute. Kittens were weak little takers, suckering losers into providing for them from some innate sense of superiority. And people fell for it because they were too terrified of actual, real world connections but still didn't want to feel as desperately alone as they were. It was a sick, pathetic relationship and it perfectly encapsulated everything Asuka hated about the lesser members of her species.

The library was filled with them, milling about, wasting their lives studying, as if that would matter. Either you had talent or you didn't. You were born special or the spawn of humanoid trash. Asuka was special, she was the most special, and everyone else was in a desperate, hopeless rush to catch her long shadow. Yet everyone else refused to acknowledge that fact. It was maddening.

Asuka slumped further. Someone was waving at her. One of those common, kitten-loving people.

The girl was painfully normal. Dark hair collected in a tight ponytail, average looks and height, lax muscle tone and a blithe, mindless amiability with how painfully normal she was. The only extraordinary thing about her was her unextraordinary freckles.

"Hi!" the girl greeted, getting out of her seat at a long, otherwise empty table. "You're Ms. Soryu, right?"

"My reputation precedes me," Asuka grumbled, ignoring the offered handshake to collapse in the chair across from her.

"Oh, um, w-well I was shown a picture of you at the administration office and—"

"Forget it." She waved it away, squinting at the girl. "And your name was…?"

"Hikari Horaki. I'm pleased to meet you."

Even her name was boring. Why on earth was she so chipper? Was she completely oblivious to her own crushing mediocrity? Most were, instead deluding themselves with noxious fantasies of friends and family, pretending those could make up for a run of the mill life without any meaning or direction. And now one of those people was her tutor.

Tutoring was a first step, Fuyutsuki had explained. An initial gesture at appeasing the rest of the faculty junta while also displaying a school spirit necessary for further negotiations. To Asuka it was nothing but a demeaning punishment designed to demoralize and humiliate her. So she still couldn't fully decipher the alien chicken scratch the Japanese called a written language. She spoke it without trouble, and Maya could take dictation/do her assignments for her, so who cared?

And it wasn't like she was going to stay in Japan forever. While her mother seemed content to squander her genius on Misogyny Island, Asuka had grander, vaguer goals. Goals that did not require more than a third-grade comprehension of kanji conjugation.

"Um, w-well, why don't we just get started?" Hikari offered after Asuka didn't respond.

She produced a pair of notebooks and a study guide. Hikari favored an old-fashioned pen and paper approach, explaining it helped show progress and rewarded effort with a sense of accomplishment. Asuka just stared at her. Was this chick for real?

It began easily enough, then Horaki began spewing gobbledy-guck all over her notepad. How these tiny little scribbles communicated language was ridiculous. And there were like three or four ways to write the same damn thing. What S&M grammar Nazi designed this system? No wonder all the Japanese were uptight powder kegs of stress and self-hate if they had to work with this their entire lives.

"Ms. Soryu? Um, the session will go better if you keep your eyes open. Thank you."

The lesson dragged on. Hikari possessed an unerringly patient affability for instruction. She seemed overjoyed at the mere idea of maybe being helpful. Asuka did her best not to strangle Hikari with her own ponytail.

"How about we take a break?" Hikari posed after approximately two geologic ages. Her tone conveyed no displeasure at her thus far ineffectual attempts to be the breakthrough Asuka was searching for.

"Guh," Asuka managed, trying to keep her brains from oozing out her ears.

That passed for assent and the notebooks were closed.

"Maybe rushing right into a lesson wasn't best," Hikari reflected. "How about we get to know each other, over lunch?"

She pulled a small bento box from under the table, complete with thermos. Asuka realized Maya hadn't given her anything to eat. Such a gross oversight was clearly someone else's fault.

"Fine," Asuka consented. "What are we having?"

"… Um, oh. Didn't you get the letter explaining to… bring your own…" Hikari shook her head. "Never mind. Uh, yes. Please, help yourself." She gently pushed the bento across the table to Asuka's waiting clutches.

Being confined to Maya's culinary mercies for so long, it took a moment for the visual information she received to be converted and labeled into what it was: food. Real food, made by someone who didn't burn water. Every grain of rice appeared hand washed, tenderly cared for from harvest to preparation. The bread was a light, fluffy golden brown that radiated tender warmth. The vegetable medley was fresh and crisp, picked at the peak of ripeness and superbly seasoned. The shepherd pie croquettes were delicate yet dense with flavor. The portions were enough to stimulate the palette yet restrained enough to avoid oversaturation.

"You made this?" Asuka asked as she vacuumed out a third of Hikari's lunchbox for her.

"Oh, no," she replied, suddenly shy. "Um, my boyfriend made it for me."

"Boyfriend?" Down went another croquette.

"Yes, he cooks, too. So we make each other's lunch on schooldays, then cook together on the weekend."

That's sweet enough to give me diabetes. "So a guy made this? A straight guy?"

"Yes," Hikari affirmed politely, though her cheeks did pink a hue.

Something approaching realization crested Asuka's consciousness. This girl, Hosaki or whatever, was a person. A person with something she considered a life beyond being Asuka's tutor, as fantastic as that seemed. And this girl was directly tied to her tenuous current academic existence.

This led to two options. One, focus on being tutored and part ways once the job was done. Or two, manipulate her into doing the menial work for her. Asuka picked the only rational choice. Manipulating this girl meant learning about her, drawing her close and then convincing her it was her idea to complete these asinine work notebooks. The future depended on it.

"We should be friends," Asuka announced.

Hikari stared at her in total shock.

"Since, you know, we're spending all this time together and all. It would be convenient."

Asuka accepted a degree of short-term indignity to facilitate her natural order. This had absolutely nothing to do with the halfhearted, unsuccessful stabs at actually better understanding Japanese.

"Friends?" Hikari repeated. She was tensed. "Just like that…?"

What was wrong with this girl, questioning her malicious intent like that? Here she was, offering friendship and a betterment of overall life quality by continued association, and she says nein?

"Sure," Asuka spoke through her teeth. "Why not?" Still the other girl hesitated. Asuka shifted and took a breath to recant.

Hikari saw the mood sour and pounced. "Yes!" she nearly yelled, startling everyone in the library, including herself. "I mean, yes, I-I'd like that. To be friends."

"… Super."

Suddenly, she was all goofy smiles and hand fumbling. "I've never really had a real female friend before," Hikari confessed. "I was always busy with family or schoolwork… This is great!" She was beaming and proud. "There's so much we can talk about. Could you tell me what you were like as a child?"

Asuka finished cleaning out her left ear. "Naw, we won't be talking about that," she casually decreed. "Tell me about what you were like as a child."

"Oh, um, sure. I'm the middle child of three sisters. Above me is Kodama, below me is Nozomi. My dad's a civil engineer and always busy. My mom's a teacher, and it really rubbed off on me, so I'd try to help her help everyone else when I was little. I learned how to cook and clean and take care of babies. My mom's efforts weren't always fully appreciated, but I saw how much joy it brought her to make others happy. She's the person I admire most, and who I want to be more like. So when I was in school, I wanted to help out my peers, too. With clubs, and as a class representative, or just offering homework advice. It, ah, it all didn't really leave a lot of free time for friends, though. But I want to help as many people as I can. It's why I'm here, I guess."

Asuka shook out of a suicide fantasy. "Fascinating." She cast about for a new, less nauseating topic. "You said you have a boyfriend, right? What's up with that?"

Hikari mistook the casually offensive jab for a general inquiry, and brightened. "Oh! Um, yes. We met in middle school. I was a class rep, and he just transferred in, so it was my job to get him up to speed. He moved around a lot as a child, so he was a little shy, but with the right encouragement he really performed well. So much so, that I could tell early on he didn't really need actual help, just some confidence. I started making up excuses to meet with him, to give him a little push to succeed, and we became friends. I always thought he was really nice, but as we grew older I realized how special he was to me. He's really smart, handsome, caring, and attentive… I love him. There was no grand, romantic gesture that made me fall for him, I just knew it.

"It took him a bit to figure it out, he's a little dense around women, but now we can't imagine life without each other. I, I mean, I don't want to get ahead of myself, but, well, he's kind of hinted at marriage before, so…" Hikari broke off, coloring contentedly. "He's still really shy about stuff like that. But I love him, so much, and I want to be with him forever."

Asuka clinically examined the person before her.

Good lord, she thought. Why do commoners submit to such torture?

Why was this girl so proud of the debilitating grotesquery of a conventional courtship? All that effort and time and energy, for what payoff? Marriage and kids? Draining shackles the static dead enders of society convinced you to strive for to perpetuate the species at the cost of freedom and individual achievement.

All Asuka had was Maya, her dumb live-in maid/puppy, and that was exhausting enough. Her mother didn't need a man to raise the picture of perfection that was Asuka. She just made the decision to have a beautiful, brilliant, talented daughter and scientifically ensured she got one. Everyone else blindly paired up out of desperation for crapshoot kids. It was baffling. And who wanted non-Asuka kids to begin with?

Having a smart, handsome, caring, attentive boyfriend might be good enough to make Hikari surrender personal ambition and pride, but Asuka deserved better. Besides, all of that was based on Hikari's admittedly common standards. What was her smart, handsome, caring, attentive boyfriend was Asuka's pile of rotting garbage in approximate human form. There was nothing conceivably special enough about such a boy to spur anything but fatigued disgust from her.

Asuka scarred the bottom of the bento to capture the last grain of rice.

Well, at least he could cook.

/\/\/\/\

Hikari suggested they meet outside on Friday. Asuka had to admit the library always made her feel imposed upon. More than usual. All of those dead or dying authors shoving their ideas down her throat, begging for her attention. Meeting at her townhouse was blithely dismissed, as was Hikari's tiny dorm. No need to let the poor girl get too comfortable with the current arrangement. It would make the eventual parting all the tougher for her.

Asuka found her in a comfortably busy courtyard enclosed by two large indoor gymnasiums and a science lab, in the shadow of an out-of-the-way tree with a decent vantage point of the human traffic. No better place to hide than in plain sight. To anyone passing by they were just your average struggling student and goddess made flesh.

Okay, Asuka admitted, it was impossible for her to hide in a crowd. But they'd be blinded by her natural magnificence and never know she was being tutored. At worst, they'd think she was lowering her standards to help Horaki. Still, she sat in the most obscuring side of the tree, just to be sure.

It was the third day of tutoring, and neither girl's plans were going terribly well, though neither girl would openly admit that. They met with strained smiles and worked with coordinated disharmony until lunch, where Asuka would pick Hikari's bento and brain. While access to real food was a windfall, conversing was a nightmare. Hikari led a boring life, existed in a boring bubble, and possessed boring goals. So Asuka's attempts to curry favor dissolved into lengthy, mind numbing narrations about family and her boyfriend, who for all the specifics she offered, might be just a figment of an overactive, desperate imagination.

Hikari was big on praise without details, leaving any useful information open to interpretation. The boy, if he existed, could cook. That alone was proven. No one could fake the kind of delicate sophistication displayed in the bento. So, phantom boy had that going for him. Actually, that was enough. Asuka was content leaving this boy as a vague concept rather than a defined person. The more Hikari gushed the more she provoked an idle desire to meet the chef, which would ultimately lead to disappointment with the reality.

But she had to pay attention to facilitate the friendship scheme. Conventional friendships took time, as Asuka understood it, despite Hikari devouring any scrap of amity tossed her way; she could prattle on at length under the heady inspiration of camaraderie, real or imagined.

To keep herself sane Asuka developed a perverse kind of amusement in building the boyfriend up with broad strokes of Hikari's imagination, inflating him into a being of merit that was leisurely exciting. For so long the opposite sex was consigned to weary antipathy. This newfound interest was a curious diversion, fed by her need to keep listening to Hikari's otherwise inane drivel.

The girl was in full recital mode, relishing the opportunity to engage in the fabled girl talk even at the expense of her bento. Asuka offered the appropriate hums and nods to keep the narration going, not sparing the breath to actually speak until lunch was thoroughly devoured.

"… didn't meet his parents until after we were dating. He was really nervous about it. He's an only child, so I guess they're really protective of him. His mother kept asking all sorts of questions, even weird stuff about my relatives and family tree. Like I know how my genome is coded. And his father… his father just sat there… I get the feeling they don't approve of me."

Asuka hummed and nodded, slurping down a superbly seasoned miso soup in a thermos.

"But he defended me. He said I was the one he loved and nothing would change that." Hikari smiled fondly. "I guess his parents accept that. I'll try my best to make him happy and prove myself and I'm sure one day we'll all get along perfectly. We have to. Even if his mother has asked me for a blood sample on two separate occasions. I guess some people are just—"

"Hikari!"

The girl startled out of her commentary and looked around, spotting a group of boys exiting one of the gymnasium complexes. They were all clad in matching shirts and shorts, skin shiny from a light workout sweat. A tall one broke from the pack and headed towards their tree.

The tall boy waved cheerfully as he approached, and Hikari returned it, albeit less enthusiastically. The tall boy, Asuka realized, was her boyfriend. The smart, handsome, caring, attentive boyfriend who packed culinary ecstasy in tiny bento.

What… What is this? she thought. She was sweating. She couldn't catch her breath. Her legs were warm molasses. The rest of her was blisteringly hot. This reaction…

No! Asuka screamed internally. It can't be!

In a sudden maelstrom of unwanted and uncoordinated recall, all of Hikari's mindless blather in praise of this boy crashed down upon her, soaking her in a gleeful deluge of sticky emotional and physical inspiration. He continued forward and her dead sense of romance, brutally murdered and buried by her own hand, was resurrected, slipping out of its grave in a flashy, warm, bewildering flood of hormonal self-loathing. She gazed upon the form of her doom, this tall, slim, gentle monster with fabulous eyes and a devastatingly unassuming smile, and she despaired.

Outwardly she offered no indication her entire world had suddenly been wrenched out of orbit. Or that her sex drive had received a startling jolt of Super Premium. Or that she was mixing metaphors.

Hikari looked ill. Asuka managed a smirk. Of course Hikari had every right to fear her little boyfriend falling under the spell of Asuka Langley Soryu. Every boy did. It simply couldn't be helped.

"Hey, I—" The boy broke off as he crested the tree, realizing the third party.

"Hi." Hikari was pale and sweaty, but ever polite. "A-Asuka Langley Soryu," she began, "this is my boyfriend, Shinji Ikari."

And he turned to her. And he spoke to her.

"Oh, hello," Shinji said.

Asuka's world ceased to turn. Oh, hello, he said to her, like she was the ugliest, fattest, smelliest, most acne-ridden grotesquery ever to fall out of a human being and he was summoning all the forces he could muster to be courteous and sociable because this was his beloved's new friend and nothing must be done to jeopardize it despite the infinitely deep well of personal revulsion her appearance dug for him. There was no gasping, no quick once-overing, no widening of his eyes, no blushing, no fidgeting, no sweating, no stuttering, no awkward glancing away only to be helplessly pulled back again, no twitching of his shorts; nothing. He gave her nothing to suggest he would in a million years ever even possibly maybe consider thinking of someday looking at her with anything other than passive neutrality because he loved the girl next to him so deeply and irrevocably that no force on earth or heaven could shake his commitment to the one person he had sworn his heart to. There was no doubt to be cast, no avenue of attack, no hint of victory for her. All he offered her was a detached civility that consigned her to the ranks of the other faceless, nameless nothings that she drowned in every day.

Or he was just really polite.

"Hello," Asuka responded breezily. She turned towards him fully, arching her back and pushing her hip out. She casually brushed at her skirt to hike it to a strategic degree.

Stop it! she shouted at her body. Stop doing things!

Shinji turned to Hikari. "Sorry to interrupt. I didn't know you were busy. I'll take off."

"You're already here, so there's no point in just leaving." Asuka willed herself to keep from gushing over him.

"I don't know…"

"It would be rude not to stay for a little."

Hikari surrendered to civility. "… I guess we could extend the break." She fidgeted as Shinji sat beside her. "Practice is out early today."

"Practice?" Asuka repeated, pointing to his uniform and giving her eyes an excuse to wander over him again. He had the perfect runner's body, lean and taut, carried with an effortless hidden strength.

"Track team. I've always been decent at running," he said, directing an in-joke smile at Hikari.

"How's that going?" Another once-over. Another flawless inspection.

"Okay, I guess."

"Okay?" Hikari repeated in semi-outrage. "Shinji, your relay team might make it to Nationals!"

"Only if we buckle down and really train hard. But we're all pretty busy with other things."

"O-Of course you shouldn't sacrifice academics for it, but it'd be such an honor to represent the school in front of the entire country. I know you could win."

He smiled at her. "Thank you. I'll just have to try harder to make it happen."

The couple shared a lingering gaze of peaceful affection.

Asuka got the unfamiliar yet distinct impression of being ignored. Despite the unwarranted outrage, she had difficulty summoning the appropriate incensed outburst to redirect attention back to her. All she could do was stare greedily at this sudden unanticipated ray of hot light after years of frigid darkness. And also wonder at what manner of emotional or physical manacles Hikari had access to in order to keep Ikari so devoted to her.

Like right now, with how easily she set his path with a few words and how readily he ate it up. Was she that desperate to keep an athletic boyfriend? To make him perform for her amusement in thin, clingy workout clothes that displayed his toned form to a disconcerting degree, sweat running over his taut muscles as he strove to please her, his body hot and wet and—

"Hard!" Asuka finally managed to blurt at Shinji. He and Hikari stared at her. "I mean, try hard. Yeah. You should definitely try hard." She swallowed with difficulty. "Hard."

"… Right. I really should get going. Sorry for the intrusion." He rose. He paused, then bent down and gave Hikari an easy peck on the cheek. She issued a surprised squeak.

"Sh-Shinji…!"

"Sorry, sorry," he said, trotting away backwards with a wave. He sounded pleasantly surprised at her reaction. It only made Asuka burn more. "I'll see you later," he told Hikari. His eyes were only on her.

Acknowledge me! Asuka commanded at his retreating form. Then he turned to leave and her mind skipped off track as she did a literal double take seeing his impeccable backside. . Shit.

She never considered herself someone who possessed fetishes or even physical turn-ons. Those things were cruelly superficial and genetic odds games. Someone might be hot, someone might be ugly, big whoop. Not to say she couldn't appreciate aesthetics or beauty but by and large a body was nothing but a greasy wrapper housing any sort of nasty normality.

That didn't stop Asuka from having a sudden, intense desire to sink her hands and teeth into Shinji Ikari's inhumanly wonderful rump.

"Let's, um, let's call it an early day," Hikari mumbled, gathering her things in a calm panic.

"Yeah," Asuka vaguely agreed, eyes transfixed on the disappearing male rear end. The other girl scuttled away, momentarily blocking the show, and she craned her head on all fours to gain an unobstructed line of view. "Yeah."

Finally, gracefully, Shinji vanished behind a building and Asuka collapsed back against the tree, the wind suddenly absent from her sails. She caught her breath and glanced about her.

What the hell was that?

/\/\/\/\

Asuka was still reclined against the tree an hour later. With enough time and distance from Shinji she was able to take stock, gain perspective, and reach an informed conclusion. Namely, that the current status quo would not, could not stand.

She gazed out over the courtyard, at the thinning stream of humanity crowding the walkways under a falling orange sun. All the little people scurrying around, rats in a maze. Asuka found herself cataloguing their various failures next to Shinji's lack of negatives. That one was short, this one was fat, the guy over there had no ass; somehow Ikari became a point of comparison for the faceless mob instead of just another nameless seat-filler.

The Ikari boy was smart. He was talented. He was motivated. Beyond that, he forced a reaction. No wonder Hikari was desperate to simultaneously brag about and hide him away all for herself. Such selfishness. She was limiting Ikari's choices with such a narrow, narrow field of vision. He needed his horizons broadened.

"And here we find the feared fire cat, definitely not in her natural habitat," Mari narrated, appearing from behind the tree. She leaned against it beside Asuka. "What's with the thousand-yard stare? Advanced nature communing?"

Asuka tried to rationalize the pros and cons of divulging Shinji's identity. Sensibly, she knew nothing good could come of Mari knowing anything else about her private life. On the other hand, there was an angrily infatuated young girl inside her that desperately needed to tell someone, anyone, about this amazing hot piece of ass she just saw.

Who else could she turn to? Her mother would complain that a boy was yet another obstacle to her eventual world renown. The nameless female drones that orbited her magnificence had dried up after high school. And it was probably only a matter of time before Mari found out. Her intel skills were uncanny.

Asuka fidgeted. "I met someone. A guy."

"Wow," Mari said in wonder. "I haven't seen you hot and bothered by some dude since high school."

"You know better than to dare refer to He Who Shall Never Be Named In My Presence."

"You mean Ryouji Kaji?"

"What the hell did I just—"

"Well, your scorn is understandable. He did wrap you around his little finger with little more than an unshaven Older Man grin—"

"Shut your mouth."

"And he somehow convinced you to buy him all that crap. You furnished his entire apartment, even the apartments you didn't know about—"

"Shut your mouth now."

"A motorcycle! I still can't believe you bought him a motorcycle—"

"If you don't shut your mouth—"

"And then he dumped you like a bad habit to chase after that chick with the amazing rack—"

"I dumped him!" Asuka screamed. "He was cheating on me with that old skank! How dare he carry on behind my back like I was some blind, lovesick, stupid little girl with no sense of reality!" She wrung the air, fuming. "And her rack was not amazing! Runny eggs hanging by a nail!"

"Okay, okay," Mari soothed, making a show of calming the dragon to the passersby that darted away from the outburst. "It's just been so long and all…"

"And she drank like a fish!"

"Yes, yes, it's all coming back. Anyway, what were we talking about before? Oh." Mari turned on her with sudden glee. "You met someone. A guy you want to get smoochy with. Love, marriage and baby carriage, or some order thereof." She playfully flinched back, awaiting an inevitable attack. Asuka stunned her by blushing. "Oh dear lord. Tell me about this boy immediately."

Where did she start? His expectation-breaking height and long limbs, perfectly complimenting her own statuesque stature? Or the melodiously unusual grace of his voice? Or maybe the deep, soulful shimmer of his brilliantly blue eyes? Or how he made her feel alive for the first time in years?

"… And he's really kind. He isn't hogging the spotlight or being a dick, and he's polite. Oh! And he's some kind of athlete. I wasn't really paying attention. He said he can run, I think. But he isn't like a gross, muscle-bound freak or anything. He's perfectly in shape. He's got this amazingly firm, round behind with these crazy shorts that had to be painted on and…"

Asuka was babbling and hated herself for it. But the tap was on, working suspiciously well for such a dry spell.

Mari absorbed it with a neutral expression. "Is that so? Just sleep with him already."

"He has a girlfriend."

"So? Just sleep with him already."

"He's totally devoted to this girl, for whatever reason. He won't stray."

"So? Just get him drunk and sleep with him already."

"You're a broken record," Asuka said.

"Princess, I know you. Either you sleep with this guy now and get it out of your system, or he'll be Kaji: The Sequel, and you will be obsessed with him and you will not be able to shut up about him and you will drain your spirit and bank account for him and he will ruin your life again. So just sleep with him already."

"… Not everything can be solved by sex."

"You're so negative," Mari said. "Think about everything that can be solved by sex. Look at me. Am I ever stressed about some random hot dude? No. Because if I see a random hot dude and think 'Gee, I'd really like to sleep with him,' I sleep with him. Problem solved."

The troubling amalgamation of behavioral disorders she called a personality seemed to exist independent of her libido. Mari was active with at least two men that Asuka knew about. One of her professors, and Shigeru Aoba, the owner of The Beast. Which, admittedly, was a boon. Free access to a hot bar was not a perk Asuka took lightly.

"Does Mr. Aoba share your worldview?"

"Shigeru doesn't have any delusions about what we're doing. He's my fun time boy. Just don't talk philosophy with him. Good God, what a downer. But you're changing the subject. You've got the fever and running boy has the prescription. How are we going to hook you two crazy kids up?"

"What's with this 'we' business?" Asuka asked.

"It's obvious you need me for this. I'll be your backup. Your wingwoman. Your connection with glasses. Don't worry about the details; I'll cover all the little things." Mari started trotting away. "You just focus on that amazingly firm, round behind! I'm on the job!"

She watched her go. With Mari "on the job" events were thoroughly out of her hands. The best Asuka could hope for was limiting the fallout to casualties and not fatalities. This sudden lack of control, first internal and now external, was an unacceptable breach of discipline. But maybe Mari was onto something. Already she found her thoughts bending unnaturally towards Ikari, and her body following suit. She needed to halt this spiraling deviation.

She rose with purpose and resolve. Deviant times called for deviant actions.

/\/\/\/\

Asuka spent Saturday strategizing in her townhouse. Shinji deserved no less than her complete attention. Detaching the life-sucking parasite that was Hikari Horaki from him was a delicate operation, requiring finesse and tact. To accomplish the goal, she would need to draw tight her network of operatives. That meant a lot of underhanded and possibly illegal activities that were below her station. After all, she couldn't be expected to stain her perfect hands with the kind of nefarious dirty work so prevalent among the lower classes. It just wouldn't do to sully their image of her, especially when they were going to do it anyway. Might as well let it benefit her.

Asuka would have to play this close to the vest, with care and caution. For any conventional boy, drawing him away from some common girlfriend would be child's play. But Shinji was no conventional boy. Asuka wanting anything to do with him was proof enough.

Mari could be, surprisingly enough, discreet when necessity demanded it. And Asuka itching for a boy was a happening rare enough to demand it. She wouldn't squander this opportunity for harassment until she wrung every ounce of sadistic abuse from it. Or until Asuka wrung Shinji dry.

For the particulars, gathering logistics and info on targets and players involved to form a workable strategy with contingency plans and emergency backups, she required someone with tech ability and a complete lack of a social life to exercise that ability for her benefit.

Maya was in the kitchen, finishing the night's dishes and prepping the following week's meal plan. The girl carried on the menial chores with a chipper, "look how helpful I am" smile, silently begging for accolades from her minimum wage efforts.

Still, she was loyal, and had a technical skill set. It was up to Asuka to figure out how those attributes could be employed for Asuka's benefit. Maya's own initiatives met with failure and ridicule. The girl needed a firm hand to guide her, lest she stumble and ruin everything she touched with her innate drive for mediocrity.

Asuka leaned against the partitioned counter separating the kitchen from the living room. Maya, in the midst of a valiant battle against a stubborn grease stained plate, was immediately alert to her proximity and froze, awaiting instruction and a purpose to her life.

"I have a use for you," Asuka told her. "For a special assignment."

Maya's entire being lit up with barely concealed joy.

She bid her into the war room, otherwise known as the living room, where she began to sketch out a complicated stratagem. It was an intricate planning session, with computer graphs, timetables and pie charts. Over the course of several weeks Asuka would gradually let Hikari grow closer, all the while subtly drawing information on Ikari and sowing discord between the two. Maya would meanwhile obtain their respective schedules and set up carefully orchestrated "accidental" meetings for Asuka and Shinji when he was free, while disseminating damning rumors about Hikari. Or get her deported. One or the other. It was only a matter of time before Asuka's natural perfection drew Ikari away from his substandard fate. Maya absorbed it all with wide-eyed enthusiasm, barely able to sit still as the preparations were made.

Asuka's phone rang, the four-note "Psycho" shower scene soundtrack revving up. She thumbed the device on.

"What is it, Mari?" She listened. "Uh huh. I see." She ended the call, then turned to Maya. "Scratch all that. Turns out Horaki left campus this weekend. Some family thing. Her mom got a promotion or died or something. Whatever. Ikari is alone and I'm through wasting time. I'm going to get him smashed, then smash him against the headboard."

Asuka leapt up the stairs to the second spare bedroom, long since converted to a spacious closet. She began tearing through the racks.

"Maya! Where's my green dress with the choker? The hot yet dignified one? Never mind, I found it. I don't need you."

Then to the third spare bedroom, for shoes and accessories. Then to her actual bedroom for perfume. In full romantic battle togs she flew back down the stairs to the landing, critically scanning for faults in the mirror by the front door.

"How do I look?" she asked.

"Beautiful."

Asuka rolled her eyes. "Of course I do. I know that. Do I look desperate? I need a constructive eye. You know what? Never mind. You'd only embarrass yourself again. I mean, look at you. You're wearing sweatpants." She continued preening in the mirror. "How much cash do you have?"

Maya scrambled for her purse and emptied it without hesitation.

She frowned at her. "This is it? That's not enough to get properly sloshed. God, what use are you?" She shoved the bills and plastic into her purse. "I'll just have to lure him to The Beast. Aoba can comp everything. Be scarce when I get back."

"Have a nice ti—"

Asuka slammed the door shut behind her.

/\/\/\/\

She was a hunter gliding through the wilds under a low moon. Weak, ugly prey grazed in oblivious ignorance at every turn but she demanded a challenge, a game worthy of her superior talents. Otherwise there was no sport, no point to it. Her quarry was smart, cleverly camouflaging his majestic beauty in the shallow end of the gene pool. But he was there so long he had lost all sense of how exceptional he really was. It was up to her to make him remember.

Asuka was readying a "mounting" pun to complete the metaphor when she arrived at Shinji's dorm, the immediate vicinity in a swell of subdued activity. Most of the residents were outside, milling about in a mindless stupor. Campus security and a police car were parked at the entrance. Asuka kept an ear open as she searched the crowd.

"This sucks."

"Yeah, but better safe than sorry."

"I guess. But really, how often do we get a bomb threat in a specific dorm room?"

Mari, Asuka thought. She should have expected some kind of illegality from her end to smoke Ikari out. Still, it got him in the open, without a place to sleep tonight. Maybe Mari's insanity wasn't a complete detriment after all.

She continued searching. Then the crowd parted like a curtain and she saw Shinji reclining on the ground by a tree, idly watching all the little people run around with their heads cut off. He was calm and collected, an island of hot tranquility in a sea of ugly marauding nobodies. She scrambled over to his side.

"Ikari."

He looked up blinking and stared at her face. This wasn't a male attempt to stall as he drank in her image. He was genuinely trying to place her.

"We met yesterday, outside the gym…"

He blinked again. Asuka deflated.

"Your girlfriend is tutoring me…"

"Oh! Ms. Soryu. I'm terribly sorry. Yes, I remember now."

"Call me Asuka." Might as well ditch formalities now. She was aiming for something considerably longer and wetter than a handshake at the end of the night.

"I don't want to impose…" he began.

"Nonsense. We should be on better terms."

He made to stand and she politely offered him help getting up, pawing at his lean, sculpted arm as much as she could manage before he stepped away. He blushed at the manhandling.

"Um, thanks," he said, straightening his shirt.

Asuka appraised him. Was he a virgin? She wouldn't be shocked if Hikari turned out to be a total prude. On the one hand, great. No worries over STDs. On the other, what was wrong with him? What was wrong with Hikari? Stealing this prime piece of Japanese beefcake from the market and not chowing down? That girl was too common for her own good.

"Like I said, we should get to know each other." Biblically. "I've always been interested in, ah, that thing you do. With the sports and all."

"Track?"

"Yeah, sure. That."

"Well, if you want to join the girl's team, then—"

"No. I mean we should be closer. Personally." Asuka saw she stepped into foul territory and pulled back. She swallowed as much pride as she could. "What I meant to say is, we should be friendly, since Horaki is tutoring me."

Shinji's brow furrowed as he considered that. "She does talk an awful lot about you…" He nodded. "Right. Since you're friends with Hikari, we should be friends, too."

It took all of her restraint to keep from blurting "with benefits."

"And please, call me Shinji."

He smiled at her.

Screw planning. Screw delicacy. Screw social tact. This was happening, right here, right now. Asuka observed his sober reticence. Well, maybe not right here, right now. But imminently soon.

"So," she began, "a bomb threat, huh? And in your room, you say. Wow. Spooky. Oh, the police said it'll take a while? Well, it's no fun just sitting around here. Say, why don't we go somewhere? Together? We can get a jumpstart on the whole getting friendly thing."

He assented to her logic, who wouldn't, and she led him off campus. They soon arrived at The Beast, an unassuming storefront hiding a narrow bar. Shinji looked up at the small name placard, featuring thin print and a strange, black and white striped sphere.

"I never knew about this place," he remarked.

"It's a little low budget, and it takes a few visits before you appreciate its nuances, but it's a solid throwback to past establishments while adding a fresh spin on the concept of a bar."

"… Sounds interesting."

"It has its uses."

They entered. It was a long, dim room opening up towards the back to house small tables. The bar ran along the far wall, showcasing a varied collection of drinks from around the world. An old-fashioned jukebox sat in the corner, whispering an amiable soundtrack. An acoustic guitar was mounted over the entrance. The atmosphere was subdued but not depressed. A quiet den of inebriation.

Asuka led Shinji through the crowd and politely forced her way to a pair of stools at the bar. They sat and she worked on her posture; crossing her legs towards him to hike her dress up further, leaning in his direction while being careful to push her chest out to meet his eyes. Any effect was lost on Shinji's respectful lack of situational awareness.

"I'm surprised we never met before yesterday." She wasn't that surprised. Campus was an easy place to lose a diamond in the rough, especially when one abandoned all hopes of finding diamonds.

"I guess we were both too busy?"

Asuka leaned further. "I'll be completely honest with you. I was a little hurt you never heard of me before."

"Oh, sorry." His smile was somehow an apology as well. "I try to ignore gossip because I want to make up my own mind about people."

This innocent boy, she thought with a strange thrill. He was the ostensible antithesis of He Who Shall Never Be Named In Her Presence. He was naïve and shy and cute. He was not confidently strutting into her world, demanding her attention and money. He was practically begging for her to take control, eagerly handing her the leash.

"Hikari taught me that," he explained further.

Clearly, he needed a better teacher.

He was a danger to all women, strolling through life with his oblivious handsomeness, leading them on without even knowing it. Hikari was too much of a grateful doormat to do anything about it. Mari would entertain a night of abuse then toss him aside when he got emotional. It was up to Asuka to do what needed to be done.

Get him talking, get him relaxed. Asuka was a master of The Hunt, mostly for protective purposes, but new avenues suddenly appeared from her keen ability to dissect a man and his intentions. Shinji was clearly uncomfortable being out with a girl so much hotter and smarter and more interesting than what he was normally chained to, it was only natural, so she had to get the ball rolling. She chose the only topic she knew about him for sure.

"So I understand you're quite the chef. I've never tasted such a… stimulating bento."

He grinned sheepishly. "Thanks, but Hikari's the better cook. I learned everything I know from her."

Dead end. Asuka did not want to explore any potential aspect of his relationship with that other girl.

"Speaking of learning, what are you studying here?"

"Ah, nothing important. Hikari's the one with a real plan, to be a teacher."

"How about sports? You're, uh, you're on that team with the running."

"I've run Track since middle school. Hikari gave me the encouragement and confidence to try."

"What's your favorite color?"

"Brown. Like Hikari's eyes."

Oh. My. God, Asuka thought. Doesn't this guy talk about anything besides Horaki? What kind of miserable life inspired such devotion to the average?

She remembered where they were. Get him relaxed…

Asuka signaled the bartender to no avail. She flung a coaster at him.

"Ms. Soryu," Aoba greeted her, rubbing his sore head. "Mari's not here?"

"She's fending off the police. I'm here with… a friend."

Shinji offered a wave. Aoba's eyes trebled.

"Two Illustrious Specials," she ordered. Aoba raised an eyebrow, but complied and set to creating a pair of bright green shots.

"Um," Shinji began in embarrassment, "I don't really drink."

"Don't worry," Asuka soothed him. "These are nonalcoholic."

Aoba opened his mouth to correct her. Asuka took a few years off his life with a look. Aoba shut his mouth.

She watched Shinji hesitantly bring the glass to his lips, then reached to tip it further, helping him sluice the whole shot down. He fell to coughing and she failed to stop a toothy smile.

"That was nonalcoholic?" he demanded, wiping his chin clean.

"Of course it was," she giggled at him. "You said yourself you don't know much about drinking. So I'll teach you. All sorts of things."

She palmed the bar for another round.

They drank. Another shot loosened his tongue enough to open him up about his major. In any other circumstance, hearing about the delicate intricacies of theoretical biochemistry would make Asuka cut someone but she found she could listen to Shinji talk for minutes on end if it wasn't about another girl. It was startling. Normally Asuka would have to interrupt or silence other people's stupidity and nonsense for their own sake but he was somehow different. And it wasn't just her fascination with watching his beautiful soft lips curve around the words he spoke.

His polite conversation was hotter than the dirtiest talk. His eyes never strayed from her face. He wasn't positioning his body for an accidental pawing. But he possessed a subtle, calm reserve that electrified her. For once, she was chasing, not being chased, and it was thrilling. Instead of having everyone know her perfection, she was challenged to prove it. For the first time in years she had a clear goal and the will to achieve it.

"So, then what happened?" Asuka prompted as she helped him down another shot. After the first she had discreetly discarded her own refills on the floor.

Shinji swallowed, sending a languid shiver through his body. "S-So then I was presenting in front of the class, and the professor… D'you know Professor Akagi?"

"You mean the Old Hag?"

Shinji looked scandalized by the nickname, then contained a burst of laughter behind a hand. "Yeah. Yeah, that's what everybody calls her. Man, she always gives me such a hard time. She always says my surname name like a curse." He wobbled on the barstool, and relaxed into a slouch against Asuka's arm. He didn't seem to notice, and hummed contentedly. "I'm warm. What were we talking about?"

"You were complimenting my dress."

"I was? I mean, yeah, it's really pretty. It suits you." Shinji wobbled again.

The Illustrious Special, The Beast's signature, secret drink that Aoba concocted for Mari, was also ordered by another, less subtle name. The No Nonsense Mine, as it was also known, was somewhat notorious for blowing you sky-high before sending you helplessly on your back. It produced a delicate state of intoxication where inhibitions were lost without voiding your stomach or blacking out.

Asuka had seen it in action enough times to gauge the timeframe for optimum effectiveness. Shinji listing like a ship in a hurricane was the "all hands on deck" signal.

"Goodness," she said to him, displaying her wrist. "Just look at the time. I didn't realize it was so late."

"Really?" He blearily zeroed in on her watch, inadvertently brushing his hair over her left collarbone. "Can't quite… see…" He leaned further. Any lower and a few public decency laws were about to be violently violated.

"We need to leave. Now." She grabbed his hand, warm and sure, and made to depart.

"If it… If it's late," Shinji began, staying in his seat and working through a number of shots to find himself, "I was… supposed to call… Hikari tonight… should let her know, I was…"

A detached portion of her mind was quietly impressed with his ability to stay true to a single substandard partner under the influence. She dismissed the admiration as quickly as it appeared. Such loyalty was grossly misplaced. And impeding her own imminently explosive objective.

Asuka sat back down. She smiled at him. "Have another drink."

/\/\/\/\

He stumbled through darkness into another world. The floor skewed wildly with each step but a powerful, undeniable force kept him from falling. It guided him through gloom and uncertainty to a warm, dimly lit chamber. In the chamber's center was a stage. Upon the stage was a cello.

Come, the cello spoke to him. Play me.

Despite the low light he could see its form, all curves and strength, exotic wood glistening with polished perfection. His eyes wandered its impeccable craftsmanship and taut strings. Never before had he beheld such beauty in an instrument. It defied his expectations of what he deserved. Yet here it waited, alone in proud accomplishment, needing someone to appreciate its natural excellence.

He approached the stage.

He found an unbending bow in his hand, leading him to the cello under an irresistible magnetism. The instrument filled his senses and spurred a powerful desire to perform. He offered a series of uncertain, fumbling bow saws. The cello issued low scratches of disapproval.

No, the cello spoke to him. That is not how you play me.

The cello was right. The cello deserved better. Its quality and magnificence merited more. He felt it waiting in his arms and a steely resolve swam over him. He knew what had to be done.

He played. He played like never before. He played without hesitation or doubt. He played with wild abandon. Years of unyielding musical repression dissolved as he performed. Restraints he was not fully conscious of lifted and he was free to explore harmony and technique to the full extent of his ability.

The cello moaned and squeaked under the force but withheld. It was an instrument that encouraged deviation and experimentation. Any sheet music was forgotten and he let pure instinct guide him. Strings snapped and curled with gleeful plucked notes. The cello sang beneath his bow. They worked in concert, weaving through favorite melodies with the divine touch of a virtuoso's fever dream.

The tempo increased. The pulse of musical life strummed with a frantic rhythm, the notes churning and colliding into a frenzied symphonic cacophony, bursting into a violent shuddering crescendo as he tore the bow across the strings with a thunderous final triumph. He fell back, dizzy at the effort, into a gentle embrace of fluid warmth. The cello fell with him, its glistening curves molding against his body, and they were still, letting the last note echo across the stage and throughout the chamber until it became a delicate accompaniment to the warm silence.

The bow was still in his hand.

On to the second movement.

/\/\/\/\

Asuka stepped out of the shower.

The bathroom was a blanket of warm mist, her image in the mirror over the sink an obscure haze of color and shape. She couldn't recall the last time she treated herself to the simple pleasure of a long steep. She was never a morning person, normally everything was a thick fog until coffee, but today she felt refreshed on top of a revitalizing shower. It was going to be a good day.

She walked back to her bedroom in a towel and stood before her wardrobe's open drawers, debating what to wear. She decided on a skirt and blouse. It was spring after all. She took a seat before her vanity to apply a light touch of makeup, more to accentuate than to conceal, and a dash of perfume. She rubbed her wrists together to help the scent of strawberry along and glanced behind her.

"You still here?" Asuka asked.

"Oh, God," Shinji was saying, curled into a ball in his underwear on the floor by her closet. "Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God."

"Shower's free, if you want it. Give the faucet a few minutes to warm back up. The plumbing here sucks."

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh—"

"And, I don't know. You hungry? I could eat a horse."

He finally looked up at her. "How can you be so… calm!?"

"What are you going on about?" She began brushing her hair, tilting her head to keep his image in her vanity mirror. "Why wouldn't I be calm?" She hadn't felt this relaxed in ages.

It might pay to keep him on a tether. While the thought of a conventional relationship in the light of day sickened her, she wasn't about to simply step aside and let Hikari or some other anonymous female swoop down and condemn Shinji to a conventional life of mediocrity.

"Because…!" He gestured wildly. "What we did, I…! Oh, God, what have I done?"

"You weren't complaining last night," Asuka said. "Or this morning."

"That…! I was drunk! I had to be drunk! You made me get drunk!"

"Funny, you certainly seemed functional enough."

"Oh, God," he whined, retreating back into a ball. "I have to tell Hikari."

"No you don't."

"Of course I do! She's my… girlfriend." He managed to get the word out through a series of shuddering gulps.

"For whatever reason."

"We were… we were supposed to get married!" Shinji said with frantic rehearsal. "After college, and when we both had jobs, and I was going to propose at the restaurant where we had our first date and we were going to have two kids, a girl and then a boy, because that's what she always dreamed of, and we were going to grow old and be together forever."

"And you were okay with that?"

"Yes!"

"Why?"

"… Because that's what you're supposed to do!" Shinji screamed at her. "That's what people are supposed to do!"

"What are you, stupid?" Asuka asked. "You're deluding yourself. You've been suckered by getting trapped in a pedestrian life with a mediocre mate. She stole your drive for something better. Cast off those shackles and stand on your own two feet."

Shinji stood. He approached her. He shook. He looked angry enough to strangle her.

God, Asuka thought. Why does that turn me on?

While another round fueled by unanticipated rage wasn't totally unappealing, she did just get out of the shower. She patiently waited for his anger to verbally percolate.

"Don't talk about Hikari that way," he bit out.

"What way? Objectively? Honestly? Even she can see she's dragging you down. Think of this as your Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not that I'm proposing marriage or anything."

"Who'd want you?"

Asuka gave him an incredulous look. Shinji turned away in defeat.

He gathered his clothes. "I don't know how Hikari could be friends with you." He winced pulling his pants up, the belt catching a suspiciously red behind. "You're a monster."

She shrugged and returned to her hair. "Says the cheating boyfriend. Get over it. And get over your delusional hang-ups about love. Love doesn't exist. Attraction is just a cheap, temporary chemical reaction dumb people dress up with all sorts of nonsense to comfort themselves. Grow up."

She was talking to herself. Shinji already stomped down the stairs to the foyer. The front door of the townhouse swung open then slammed shut. Asuka continued brushing her hair.

"H-Hello?" a small voice wavered through the house. Maya slowly emerged from her room, eyes wide and haunted. She hung on the door, seeking support like a wounded war refugee crossing the border. "Is anybody here?"

"Maya!" Asuka called out.

The girl fell. "Y-Yes?"

"I'm famished. Make me pancakes."

She picked herself up. "Of course. I'm on it." She descended to the first floor, hugging the railing.

Asuka sat at her vanity, working her brush through a stubborn tress. She hoped Maya remembered the bananas.

/\/\/\/\

His office was always messy.

Asuka shrugged. Some people were messy.

"Yo, Prof," she greeted, sitting in the free chair. She reclined and crossed her legs. It was pretty comfortable.

"Ms. Soryu."

They stared at each other.

"What the hell happened?" Fuyutsuki finally asked.

"What are you talking about?" Asuka's conscience was clear. This meeting was unnecessary and uncalled for. If anything, she felt better than she had in years.

"What am I talking about?" he repeated. "The world is falling apart and you ask what I'm talking about?"

Asuka bothered to notice his physical condition. His thin hair was disheveled, his clothes were rumpled, a light but unmistakable sheen of nervous sweat rested on his brow. His eyes were sunken and twitchy, darkly shaded by a haunted sleeplessness.

"Ms. Horaki dropped out on Monday without any warning. She didn't even request transfer." He swallowed with difficulty. "She didn't offer the school any sort of explanation. Could you shed some light on this mystery?"

"Nope."

"Really. None at all. She was tutoring you, as you recall. She never mentioned any problems to you? No. Really? That's a shame. Academically, Horaki is a marginal loss. Of course we regret any premature student departure, of course, but Horaki was a special case. You see, she was romantically involved with one Shinji Ikari."

"You don't say."

He ran a shaky hand over his sweaty forehead. "Yes. And sources say she ended their relationship before she left. And now his enrollment, and future, is in the air."

"How tragic."

"Yes. It is. You may not have known or cared, but Ikari is from a rather singular family. Nothing as mundane as politics or the mob. No. This country, some say most of the civilized world, moves to the beck and call of the Ikari clan. And as their heir, Shinji is destined to begin directing it all once he graduates and establishes himself."

"Huh."

Fuyutsuki leaned forward and clutched the edge of his desk, both for emphasis and dear life.

"Ikari's parents will flay the entire faculty if their son drops out!"

"Well, that sounds like it's more of a problem for you than for me."

His face darkened and he rose from his seat. "Believe me, it will be both our problems, you little harlot. Do not consign me to senility because of my age. I do not find it coincidence that Ikari's dorm room was targeted for a bomb threat on Saturday, you found him shortly thereafter and lured him to a bar, and he was seen leaving your townhouse the following morning. I will not sit idly by while this school is threatened because of your libido!"

Asuka gave him a dull stare.

"That sounds dangerously like sexual harassment to me," she told him. "You'll have to forgive me, since I'm so unaccustomed to such matters, but a big, important faculty member like you tailing and meddling in the private affairs of Dr. Soryu's only daughter might not be seen as purely professional on your part. I'd hate for my mother to get the wrong impression and say, transfer me out and withdraw all that lovely funding she gives you and this school. You know how protective she is. It would just break my heart if she financially and professionally crippled you."

The anger bled from his face and his breathing slowed to a contemplative rate. Fuyutsuki sank down into his squeaky chair.

"Indeed," he said mechanically. "No need to drag anyone else into this. Certainly, you had nothing to do with any of it. I'm sure this Horaki situation is just a terrible misunderstanding on my part. I am, after all, your academic advisor. I have to do all in my power to aid you."

Asuka was out of her seat. "You do that."

She left the office, dragging the door shut with her foot.

Asuka headed towards the exit. A school poster featuring a cartoon cat warning against alcohol poisoning caught her eye. She couldn't help but think it was sort of cute.

/\/\/\/\

End

Author notes: Did this pander too much, or just enough?